Despite her irrational tenacity, you've got to admire Maria's determination to achieve something bigger than herself, something that unites and benefits a community. That doesn't seem, at first, a concern of the protagonist in Xavier Giannoli's IN THE BEGINNING (2009; July 24 at 4:40 pm), a true story of hard times in the spirit of Laurent Cantet's Time Out (2001). "Philippe Miller" (a hangdog François Cluzet) is the alias taken by a con man who descends on a depressed Northern French village left hanging after a corporation abandoned a highway project that had promised everybody jobs. Posing as a representative of the corporation, Miller restarts the project, hoping to pocket a pile of kickbacks and other payoffs before bailing out.
But something compels him to try to make the illusion a reality. Maybe it's the joy and hope he's brought to the community. Or the sexy mayor (Emmanuelle Devos). Or the Bridge on the River Kwai–like idea of leading a bold project regardless of how Sisyphean or perverse. Or just the audacity of creating something out of nothing, as God does in Genesis (to which the film's title alludes). "It's beautiful," he says at one point, looking at the stretch of unfinished roadway under floodlights he's created, and it's to the credit of the director's detailing of this world and his respect for it that these words ring true.
From Giannoli's austerely realistic Beginning, it seems a long way to filmmaking brothers Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu's HAPPY END (2009; July 18 at 7:20 pm + July 23 at 3:30 pm), an apocalyptic picaresque in which toady everyman Mathieu Amalric's Robinson is a retired geography teacher who can't get into doomsday because he's obsessed with Lae (Omahyra Mota), a willowy, androgynous, invariably naked temptress. While he's on holiday in Biarritz, she appears, lures him into a phantasmagoria of sex, makes him forget not only his stodgy marriage but the fact that viruses, terrorism, nuclear attacks, you name it, are destroying civilization, and then leaves him alone to track her down amid the fragmenting pieces of the world.
Lush, even overloaded, in its imagery, absurdity, and black comedy, HappyEnd can't be faulted for its excess of inventiveness on the edge of the abyss, or for its polymorphous libido. ("We fuck so much when things are bad," says one character. "Funny how our acts have no consequence now," says another.) Rather than serving up unbridled farce, it offers the kind of merciless capriciousness practiced by Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove or Luis Buñuel in just about everything. Mostly, though, as an allusion to the famed traffic-jam scene in Godard's Weekend (1967) attests, this film and the others in the festival owe their happy end to the scamps who started a cinematic revolution 50 years ago.